Winning "The Law School Admission Game"

My LSAT classes and private seminars are heavily question-driven. Students can ask whatever they want, and I do my best to answer. I've always gotten a ton of questions that range away from the LSAT and toward the broader law school application process. (After all, the only reason to take the LSAT is to go to law school.) So I realized early on that my job wasn't just LSAT preparation. It's also to help people make good decisions about where to apply, when to apply, what to include in the application, and what offers to accept. To that end, I just added a new book to my class curriculum. It's called The Law School Admission Game, written by Ann Levine, former Director of Admissions at two law schools. I blew through it over the past two days--it's a great read--and I decided immediately to give it to all my students from this point forward. It fills a huge hole in what's offered by most LSAT prep programs, and I'm proud to offer it as part of my classes. In this post, I'll give my thoughts (overwhelmingly positive, with a couple quibbles) about the book. But if you're applying to law school you really should just buy yourself a copy, which you can do here:

I promise you'll be very happy you did.

Levine is a law school admission consultant and owner of LawSchoolExpert.com. Why is she the law school expert? Well, she was Director of Student Services at the University of Denver College of Law, Director of Admissions for California Western School of Law, and Director of Admissions for Loyola Law School. That's a good start. She's also a lawyer, of course (University of Miami School of Law). But despite all that, I didn't believe she was an expert until I started reading. Inside the first 10 pages, I was a believer. It's written like an expert would write. No bullshit, no filler. This isn't a 500-page encyclopedia that you're never going to read. Instead, it's 168 pages of facts, real-world anecdotes to illustrate those facts, a ton of inside perspective from the world of law school applications committees, and a hell of a lot of common sense.

I'm really excited about this thing--I wish I would have discovered it sooner. To avoid writing a book myself, in this blog post, I'm going to bulletize my thoughts. Here we go:

PROS:

  • Levine's perspective matches mine. Unlike a lot of the big test prep companies (Blueprint, I'm looking at you) she doesn't bullshit the reader with promises of BMWs and mansions. Instead, she talks about how the law profession is serious, demanding, and very unlikely to immediately pay you six figures. She doesn't try to talk you out of law school, exactly, but she's very honest that law isn't something to jump into without serious consideration. And it's definitely not the thing to do if you simply want to get rich.
  • If you have some time off before starting law school, she advises you to "explore your passion" (skydiving instructor? viola teacher?) instead of working as a legal assistant or file clerk, where you'll bust your ass without really learning anything about legal practice or making any meaningful connections. I couldn't agree more.
  • If you're still an undergrad, she advises you to "find meaning in what you are doing. Don't pick a major because it 'looks good'... you'll do better with a subject that interests and inspires you." I suppose I must have heard that when I was an undergrad, but I never really believed it until I was well out of college. Trust me, as someone who did three graduate degrees and held a succession of jobs I hated before finding nirvana in Fox Test Prep: Just do what you love, and you'll find happiness eventually.
  • She says that working at The Gap, if it was necessary to pay your bills, is just as good or better on a law school application than an internship where you answered phones for some politician who probably didn't know your name. This absolutely matches my own perspective from the law school classroom. The kids who had obviously never worked a day in their lives always seemed to have their hands up in class, but never said anything worth listening to. (Listen douchebag, I don't give a shit what you think the law should be. Don't you realize the professor is an international expert? Why are we listening to you instead of her?) If you've been paying your own bills since you were in your teens, say so in your application.
  • She advises you, when picking an LSAT class, to talk to people who had the same instructor as you'll have. It's self-serving of me to bring this up, since I teach all my own classes. But holy shit yes do I agree on this point. Powerscore hired me over the telephone to teach an LSAT class that people were paying thousands of dollars for. I think I was probably decent on my first day, but I could have been absolute crap. Ask how long your teacher has been teaching, ask what they got on the LSAT, and ask to talk to other students in your area who had that same teacher.
  • Levine says "clients who struggle with standardized testing really suffer in the big courses like Kaplan and Princeton Review." This is true, but I think EVERYONE suffers in the big courses like Kaplan and Princeton Review. The teachers make $20 per hour, for Chrissakes. Nobody who is very good at the LSAT, and/or very good at teaching, would ever work for Kaplan or Princeton LSAT long-term. They'll either go make $50 or $100 per hour working for Powerscore or Blueprint, or they'll start their own business and make far more than $100 per hour working for themselves.
  • She advises to look into the requirements for redeeming any "guarantee" the test prep company might offer. I've heard that Kaplan requires perfect attendance and 100% completion of all homework, plus documentation of non-improvement on the test. These requirements are almost impossible to achieve. Personally, I think a "guarantee" like this is a gimmick at best, and a scam at worst. If you don't like my product, you can just tell me and I'll always make it right for you. Good or bad, you can tell your story on Yelp. (My customers have been happy so far. Check out the reviews for Kaplan LSAT and see how they compare.)
  • I love this point: She advises you to practice the LSAT in distracting conditions. This is a terrific idea. Go to Starbucks and do a 35-minute section amidst all the hustle and bustle. I've heard horror story after horror story about bad conditions on test day. You've gotta learn to ignore whatever the test might throw at you. I've heard everything from proctors with very loud shoes to jackhammering directly outside the testing room. Get over it by practicing in tough conditions.
  • She offers terrific advice on letters of recommendation. One gem: "A teaching assistant may be better able to write you a detailed letter of recommendation. This is completely appropriate and the professor may even be willing to sign the letter in addition to the T.A." I never would have thought of that, but that's a great move.
  • Another gem: "The only time a LOR makes or breaks a file is when it breaks a file." What she means here is that the LOR is not a sufficient condition--it's a necessary condition. A terrific one won't get you in, but a terrible one will keep you out. Plan accordingly.
  • I'm raving here, but it's just so good that I have to share it: She offers tips for how to write your OWN letter of recommendation, in the supremely likely circumstance that one of your proposed recommenders asks YOU to write the first draft of the letter. This is incredibly hard (I'm speaking from experience here) and Ann does a terrific job of laying out a formula for drafting this letter. Wow.
  • The book includes brief but solid advice for transcripts and resumes. You'll have to read the book to find out.
  • It's got terrific personal statement advice. One tip: Do "be likeable and impressive." Don't display "arrogance and elitism." I've read many personal statements over the years. (Not as many as Ann, but still a lot.) Arrogance is the number one failing I have seen.
  • And again I'm raving here, but Levine says the personal statement is "not there to show how many big words you know." This runs a close second to arrogance on my own list of common personal statement failures. If you're looking in a dictionary or thesaurus to find a fancy word to use, use the simpler word instead. Big words show insecurity. Be conversational.

There's a LOT more than that in the book. I'm censoring myself here.

A FEW POINTS OF MILD DISAGREEMENT:

  • Levine says the best times to take the LSAT "are either in June after your junior year or in the fall of your senior year, and start preparing approximately three months before the exam."  I think this is a good schedule if you're really good at standardized tests, or if you are planning on taking a year off before law school. This schedule will work for some, but many, many students will end up retaking the exam, which will force delaying law school for a year if you get caught on the wrong end of the LSAT cycle. As I've written, you should take a class and take the test much earlier than you probably think.
  • Levine says "plan to take the test once and only once." While I agree that this is optimal, I think it's a tad unrealistic. You definitely shouldn't take the test unprepared--that's just a waste of time and money. So make sure you plan ahead, and are prepared on test day. But everybody has some natural variation in their practice test scores, and this variation occurs on test day as well. So a huge chunk of students, necessarily, are going to score less than their practice-test average on test day. These students should retake the test. Because this is the reality, I think everyone should PLAN on retaking the test, just in case they need to. One reason she advises to take the test only once is that it is expensive to prepare and to take. It's true that the test costs $100-whatever dollars every time you take it, but retaking the test does not require re-taking an LSAT class. A bad day on the test is like a bike crash--it's painful, and requires that you dust yourself off and try again, but it does not require that you relearn how to ride a bike. I have a feeling this is a point that Ann will revise in subsequent editions of the book, as more and more schools now say they only consider an applicant's highest LSAT score.
  • She says "the February LSAT is not a good idea"--if you read her explanation, I agree with her. But the headline is misleading if that's all you read. The February LSAT is perfect for people who don't want to start law school until the following year. As a matter of fact, I think it's a perfect first test date for those who want to go to law school in year +1, because it allows for a backup test date in June of year 0, which will still allow time to take full advantage of rolling admissions. She's right that "taking the February LSAT for fall admission reeks of desperation." But the February LSAT one year in advance smells sweetly of good planning.
  • A quibble about how to prepare for the LSAT: I disagree with Levine's tip that you should review EVERY answer, even those that you got right. The reason for my disagreement is I want you to do a LOT of practice questions. If you haven't done at least 10 full tests (that's 1000 questions) then you're not prepared to get your best score. I think it takes way too long to review all the ones that you knew you got right while you were taking the test. Instead, you should review all the questions you got wrong, and all the questions you GUESSED RIGHT. (Say you narrowed it down to a 50-50 and then blindly picked one... if you get it right, you definitely need to figure out WHY the correct answer is correct and the other answer is wrong.) I advise you to circle the questions you guess on while taking practice tests, so that you'll be able to review your areas of uncertainty in addition to reviewing the ones you missed.
  • Levine quotes Steve Schwartz of LSAT Blog as advising students not to "let more than a couple of days go by without using your LSAT books." I basically agree, but I'd actually amend this to say don't let ANY days go by without using your LSAT books. It's like exercise. If you miss one day, you risk missing two, then three, then a week. Even if you just do one logic game, or a couple LR questions, I think you should do something every single day to get a tiny bit better at the LSAT.

Yeah... just go ahead and buy it. I'm probably the most critical person in the world, and I absolutely loved the book. Worth every penny.